It’s January 23rd, 2008. Basshunter, accompanied by DJ Mental Theo’s Bazzheadz, tops the charts with “Now You’re Gone.” Adele, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Nickelback, and Kanye West also chart. In news, a plane crashes at Heathrow, injuring thirteen people and delaying two hundred flights. Barack Obama manages to win more delegates in the Nevada caucuses despite actually narrowly losing the numerical vote, another sign of the degree to which his campaign was unnervingly well-organized. On the Republican side, Duncan Hunter drops out, a news event leading most people to realize for the first time that hew as running. Fred Thompson also withdraws, which is about equally interesting. And Heath Ledger dies, which is on the whole rather grimmer.
On television, Torchwood’s second season plods on with Sleeper. Here we get the rare episode of Torchwood that depends largely on its parent show for relevance. Taken on its own, Sleeper is, well, a bit sleepy. Its premise works, broadly speaking, but theres no particular sparkle to it, and it largely appears to be “Gwen cares passionately about someone who’s been caught up in alien malarkey,” a plot structure recognizable from large swaths of the first season. And this time the alien malarkey seems… well… a bit silly, really. Alien sleeper agents ready to wake up and embark on a frighteningly baroque scheme to use our own weapons against us as a means of taking over the planet? Really? Last year we had a sex alien, which, while not actually any mores sensible, is at least, you know, a sex alien. This is just ridiculous.
Except the thing is, Cell 114’s plan is bog standard. Invade the Earth via a baroque plan involving military installations and evil alien pseudo-humans? It’s the plot of Spearhead From Space, Terror of the Autons, Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion, Aliens of London/World War Three and probably a few others that I’m leaving off the list. What we have here is a bog standard Doctor Who invasion, in other words, that never quite gets started. And in the time spent waiting for the big alien invasion to actually start – you know, the sort of plot that would usually involved the Doctor showing up – we instead get a human story about the people caught up in the wake of this alien invasion.
In this regard, we have the second consecutive story that has clearly thought through the point of being Torchwood. It’s a story designed to fit into the margins of Doctor Who and give them a human dimension. The basic mechanic of the series is well in place – Doctor Who is about exploring various narrative spaces, while Torchwood is about abutting them with human spaces. Not in the bland horror of Yeti-in-the-loo sense, but in a sense of ordinary lives deformed and deranged by the alien.
In this regard it’s significant that the event that causes Beth’s life to turn upside down is an act of violence. It’s only when burglars break into her house and threaten her and her husband with violence that her life unravels into an alien hell. The way in which our domestic lives are thrown into upheaval and torment by the intrusions of the horrors of the world becomes entwined with the eccentric spaces of aliens.
But there’s an annoying limit to how much can be gained by pulling on this thread. If the intrusion of the alien into Beth’s life is a metaphor for the post-traumatic space following the act of violence against her household then her secret identity becomes an act of victim blaming. The post-traumatic sense of one’s life and body being irreconcilably broken and wrong becomes literally true. The story’s resolution, whereby Beth is shown to be irreparably damaged and to need to be put down is, in this regard, frankly awful.
And this is the crux of problem with Sleeper – it sets up a fascinating nexus of points to tackle, but gets lost amongst them. Beth never has enough character to be more than just the monster of the week, but she’s stuck in a story where all of the dramatic weight hinges on the assumption that she is. The episode seems to believe that in 2008 it’s sufficient to have your villain be a transformed ordinary person, missing the fact that this has been the standard paradigm since The X-Files, and that it actually takes something more than just having a cold open featuring an ordinary person having something bad happen to them in order to make a monster of the week’s human identity particularly memorable.
In many ways this relates to a larger tightrope that Torchwood constantly has trouble with, which is that all of its genre conventions come from a place where the extraordinary is more understandable than the ordinary. And so Torchwood runs into the problem that when it wants to stress the importance of an ordinary person’s life it really has to work at it. This is why the decision not to kill Rhys in End of Days was so sensible – because he’s a well-developed instance of the ordinary world, and thus can give that end of the equation weight. But Sleeper just doesn’t have anything that accomplishes this. Beth remains a cipher defined mainly by her secretly being an alien.
So instead of an episode about ordinary spaces being caught up in the margins of a Doctor Who invasion we get an episode that revels in an extended joke about an infamously overacted line in The Five Doctors. The scene that should carry all the weight – Beth accidentally killing her husband – is strangely hollow. Neither of them feel like people. Beth’s spike arm triggering comes out of seemingly nowhere. It’s the right story beat, and the right shape for the narrative, but it’s ultimately lacking in any weight. It’s an empty exercise without purpose.
The real revelation is the decision to have Beth awaken her entire cell, so that we get a set of random other sleeper agents wandering around causing carnage. This helps in cementing the fact that this is not so much a real alien threat as another rubbish Doctor Who invasion, but its larger effect is largely negative. It makes Beth generic – one part of an alien army, the bulk of whom are wholly without personality. (Although I’ll admit, the woman who lets her pram roll into traffic so she can get on with invading the Earth is hilarious, though one suspects this is not entirely deliberate.) In a story in which Beth’s individual character is already being swallowed by her sci-fi conceit, this is the opposite of helpful.
If Beth were a more realized character such that we could go “oh, OK, that’s why she’s able to cling to her humanity where the others can’t” that would be one thing. But she’s not. She’s only coincidentally different from the other aliens because she’s the supporting character of the week and they’re just monsters. The story’s supposed to hinge on the difference between Beth and the other aliens, and instead there isn’t a difference to be found besides the one imposed by the plot structure. It marks the point when a story that really could have been about more actively decides that it’s going to settle for being about less.
This suggests an unusual problem with Torchwood, which, in its first season, was often bewildering, but which usually avoided being boring. There’s a degree to which fascinating but ostentatiously flawed stories like Cyberwoman and Countrycide are preferable to something like this, which could be trivially reskinned into being an episode of Smallville or Heroes or The X-Files or Supernatural or any other basically interchangeable show.
But even this seems too much to make about Sleeper. Sure, it completely fails to demonstrate any reason why it should be Torchwood, but this isn’t particularly notable. It’s mostly down to a script that doesn’t feel like it’s fleshed out anything, and to the fact that Nikki Amuka-Bird does little with the part of any note. The idea seems solid enough, but there’s nothing fleshing it out. This doesn’t indicate anything about the show at large any more than Sleeper reveals anything about our worlds or our lives at all.
It is overstating the case to suggest an existential crisis for Torchwood on the basis of one duff episode. But if we may be permitted to flip forward, this isn’t one duff episode. Season Two of Torchwood is very much the problem season. Season One bristled with promise; it was all spiky edges and ambition. It fell markedly short of quality at times, but even when it failed it failed in a way that felt worth trying. Yes, it was over the top too often. There were several moments in which the production team should have been politely reminded that just because you could get away with something post-watershed didn’t mean that you automatically should do so. But in other ways the first season handled that better than it gets credit for. Paul Abbot, when making his (actually very good) series Hit & Miss, about a transgender assassin, made a point of having a shot in which the main characters genitals are visible and a scene where she kills someone in the first two minutes, just to get them out of the way and take all possible sting out of them. Torchwood accomplished something similar with Day One. It went as far as it was ever going to go, thus neatly terminating all ability to focus on how far the show would go so that it could get on with doing other things.
The problem is with the second season going out on BBC Two as its primary network. This required that the show be more respectable, buttoned down, and conservative. Sex monsters were right out. Instead… and here’s where the problem arises. We trail off without a replacement. All Torchwood has to define itself on its second run is the things it’s not doing from the first one. And so we get a show defined by the ambitions it doesn’t have; by the things it has no intention of doing. Everything that distinguished it from any other action-adventure show is stripped away, save for its willingness to engage in a particular sort of fanservice. That fanservice is cheeky and wonderful and positions Torchwood as being a bit more clever than the many other shows that act like it, but there’s a gulf between “a bit more clever” and actually having something to say. Sleeper comes nowhere close to the latter, and for no particular reason. The problem isn’t with the ideas – it’s with a show that’s too scared to try to do anything with them.
Sleeper is merely the worst offender in a season that has this problem an awful lot. Other stories this season flag, but they all have glimmers suggesting some larger amount of thought has gone into them. Sleeper doesn’t. It has no discernible ambitions beyond filling its timeslot so that the BBC has its desired amount of Doctor Who-related material to flog in 2008. Once it’s aired and been burnt to the appropriate discs on the DVD set, there’s nothing left for it to do. It wasn’t incompetent. Job done. Saying more than that seems oddly superfluous.